In her blog, Words in the Kitchen Sink, Jane Heiress asks: What makes a good novel?
She got quite a few responses, some of which I have selectively included in quotation marks under the below categories.
Is it character development? “This one is crucial. I tend to love characters that have similar personalities, ideals, or experiences as I do myself or someone I love. I don’t care nearly as much about plot or setting as I do about being able to love at least one character. Really, almost every other one of my preferences can be ignored, if an author can create a strong connection between me and a character. Maybe I’m narrow-minded, but I think most best-sellers find a trait or feeling that almost everyone can personally connect with. Along the same lines, how does an author make me love a flawed character? One way is by giving him or her flaws that I have myself. I have many quirks that other people may see as “flaws,” but I consider ‘personality traits.’ Even when a character is truly flawed, I’ll give them more mercy if I can empathize with them.”
Memorable archetypes? “I’m not too strong on archetypes, so I won’t comment on that one. I think the best fantasy novels use the archetypes in new ways, like what Tolkien did by making a hobbit a hero, or what Robin McKinley does with her awkward, misfit female warriors.” Personally, I try to avoid archetypes.
Neat and logical plot? I’m not sure a plot, to be successful, has just got to be neat and logical. Slightly messy and somewhat illogical could make it captivating. The plot is very important: it is the device which conveys the story and its meaning. To my mind a plot should be believable, it should be original and it should be interesting.
Unpackaged realism? “I think that realism has a place in a good novel, but to write a novel with the sole aim to expose reality is actually a very bad idea. If you want reality, you read the newspaper–though I guess it’s all about difference in taste, because journalists in general just can’t write, so if you want realism written in a coherent, logical, and truly unbiased way, you’re kind of up a creek. Anyway, the whole reason we read is so that we can feel like we’re not alone without actually surrendering our own sense of individuality (I stole that from C.S. Lewis). So there has to be enough of reality in a novel to help us feel that the characters might have the same sort of feeling we do when faced with tragic or happy life events.”
Societal issues? “Societal issues are important if not too heavy-handed. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an expose on slavery in the South, and it was very effective, but have you read that book? I would hardly call it good, except as an expose on slavery, and if you want that, you could read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or other first-hand accounts of former slaves. Much more powerful.”
Moral lessons? “Moral lessons don’t belong in a good novel. They can be part of a novel, but if that’s the focus, I put the novel down and read the scriptures.” I agree except that I think that ethical dilemmas have a place in a novel. Ethical issues are more uncertain than moral issues, and are more subject to interpretation of the situation. They therefore tend to involve the heart and mind of the reader.
Richness of setting? “Richness of setting is very important. Novels with a strong sense of place and circumstance are usually good. Even though sometimes reading through the descriptions can be tedious.” I’m not convinced that a setting has to be ‘rich’ to add importance. In my opinion, it is more important for a setting to be both credible and interesting.
Quality of prose? “Quality of prose is essential. I mean, really, the only reason anyone reads The Great Gatsby is because the words are sparkly and fluid and they practically float off the page. Jane Austen has beautiful sentences; Charles Dickens plays games with grammar as part of his subplots; Chaim Potok paints murals with words, so reading one of his novels is almost like going to an art gallery; Geoge Eliot uses such quality of phrasing that you can’t help loving the words she chooses to describe something.
Suspense? Dramatic intensity? “Suspense is important, but I get bored if there’s too much of it. I don’t guess ahead, and if you pack in the action and tension too heavily, I disengage and go on to something that unfolds more gradually. I’m going to combine this one with dramatic intensity and use a movie as an example. I don’t like action flicks because sometimes they go too fast and too much happens at once. It’s not that I’m too dumb to follow it, but the high-speed car chases and stuff are not the substance of a story for me, so if there’s too much of that, I’m finished. There’s also a book out now, by James Patterson, a new series for teens, that is non-stop action. Kids like it, but I thought it was second-rate, just because there wasn’t any good character development and his sentence structure was severely lacking in quality. Robin McKinley sometimes goes the other way and tries to turn her high-speed moments of tension into epic poems. It doesn’t work either. J.K. Rowling’s action scenes work very well, mostly because they’re short.”
Comedy? No one commented on this. I think that if one is writing a serious novel, rather than a comedy, comedy can have a place: either as a device to relieve tension for the reader, or to shed light on a character. If suspense goes on too long, as the comment above suggests, the reader can lose interest. Or, if a character says or does something funny, one sees a new dimension of him or her.
Emotional response? “As for emotional response, if you can’t get emotionally involved with a book, it isn’t worth reading.” Agreed!
Expanding intellectual horizons? “When you’re trying to expand someone’s intellectual horizons, that’s tricky. Any book worth reading will not do that on purpose, because no-one likes to feel dumb, or to feel like they’re being taught something. A book that expands your intellectual horizons will do it in a painless way–too many new ideas too fast will not make a lasting impression. The important thing is that a book will set itself up on familiar turf, then take your ideas to the next level.”